Donald Trump declined to formally address the nation on Thursday, in the hours following an unprecedented airstrike in Iraq that left top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani dead, choosing to give a punctuated statement to reporters from his resort in Mar-a-Lago instead the following afternoon.
The Defense Department first announced Soleimani had been killed on Thursday evening.
Unlike his predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, who have paused to address the country following pivotal U.S.-led strikes in the past, Trump spent much of Friday attacking political rivals on Twitter, boosting book sales for his allies, and boasting about the Thursday night hit on Soleimani, a brutal commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which took place near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
Finally, just after 3 p.m. on Friday, Trump spoke to reporters from a podium at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, announcing the news, but taking no questions.
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump claimed.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” he added. “We did not take action to start a war.”
Trump’s affinity for self-promotion and desire to paint his administration as tough on terror seemed at odds with his apparent reluctance to provide a more formal address to the nation. The decision also breaks with past presidents who have traditionally documented important moments through official channels, intended to inform the American public of crucial matters.
In the late evening hours on May 2, 2011, shortly after a targeted operation at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Obama took his place at the lectern in the East Room of the White House and informed the country that Osama bin Laden, then the leader of al-Qaida and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, had been killed.
“Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice,” he said.
He gave “thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country,” noting that they were “part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.”
Other presidents have used their official platform at the White House to inform the nation of major military developments as well.
Eight years before Obama’s East Room address, on March 19, 2003, Bush spoke from the Oval Office to confirm that U.S. and coalition forces were engaged “in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
The announcement marked the beginning of the Iraq War and a contentious multi-year armed conflict, which continues today and has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and service members.
“These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign,” Bush said at the time, in a live broadcast to the country. “… To all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you. That trust is well placed.”
Bush’s predecessor, Clinton, delivered his own addresses to the nation on multiple occasions throughout his tenure, including following the bombing of Iraq in December 1998, which was carried out ostensibly with the intent of “degrading” the country’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, according to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“Earlier today, I ordered America’s armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq,” Clinton said, noting their mission was to “attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.”
“Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” he said, adding that the address was intended to “explain” his decision, as well as “why we have acted now and what we aim to accomplish.”
Given that history, it’s unclear why Trump this week chose not to formalize the attack in Iraq, especially considering the significance of his actions and the fact that he has chosen to address the nation on similar matters before.
As recently as October last year, Trump spoke to the American people from the White House to announce that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed hours earlier in an overnight military operation in Syria. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place,” he said at the time.
Soleimani was perhaps an even more ruthless leader responsible for, among other things, allegedly training Iraqi militants in producing roadside bombs that have killed thousands of troops and U.S.-led coalition soldiers, and for propping up Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal regime in Syria.
The decision to assassinate Soleimani, then, who the BBC notes is “widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei” and retains popularity among many Iranians for facing down U.S. policy, carries great weight. Already, Soleimani’s allies have vowed revenge on the United States for the attack and experts fear the move could carry the region into a new phase of armed conflict, or, some believe, war.
Trump has often been praised by his supporters for his bare-knuckle, breakneck style of addressing the press and the American people — both through on his personal Twitter account and in over-the-top news conferences or press gaggles from the White House lawn — which may best explain his decision to avoid a formalized setting to deliver the Soleimani news.
However, it’s more than likely Trump will use the stage at a campaign rally at a Miami megachurch on Friday night to address the attack, using Soleimani’s death to stir up his raucous crowd of fervent supporters into a frenzy.
But the delay in Trump’s decision to address the strike in Iraq, as well as the potential fallout, was a break from precedent — and certainly comes at a time when the American people expect reassurance the most.